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Is ‘Industry 4.0’ a Revolution, or Gimmick?

Is ‘Industry 4.0’ a Revolution, or Gimmick?
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By Charles F Moreira, Editor

Two recent media articles arguing whether Industry 4.0, a.k.a. Ind 4.0, IR4.0, 4IR or in Malaysia’s case IndustryFWRD is a gimmick or revolution piqued my interest to comment on the question.

In his article entitled “Is Industry 4.0 (IR 4.0) a gimmick?” in Free Malaysia Today of 6 October 2020, columnist K. Kathirgugan says that despite have worked and lived in both  the Silicon Valley, California and  Shenzhen, China for several years, he never heard anyone there speak of “Industry 4.0”.

https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/opinion/2020/10/06/is-industry-4-0-ir-4-0-a-gimmick/

Two days later on 8 October 2020, Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDeC) chairman Dato’ Wira Dr. Haji Rais Hussin Haji Mohamed Ariff hit back with a a rebuttal entitled “4IR: Evolution or revolution?” in the Malay Mail.

https://www.malaymail.com/news/what-you-think/2020/10/08/4ir-evolution-or-revolution-rais-hussin/1910702

Let’s dig deeper into their respective backgrounds, arguments as well as definitions of Industry 4.0 by others.

Backgrounds

Kathirgugan has an engineering degree and together with Deepak Sekar, they co-founded Silicon Valley start-up Chowbotics and in 2015 they invented their fresh-food making robot Sally, which can make Mexican, Chinese, Indian, French and other ethnic dishes with a few presses of its touch-screen interface.

Sally has won several awards, including the Most Innovative Product of the Year for 2018 by Best in Biz Awards, and a Silver Award in the Small and Medium Business category.

“Sally has a ‘feedback loop’ with a certain amount of intelligence, while a vending machine doesn’t. It knows there is food inside and process it according to customer requirements,” Kathirgugan, now technical lead at Chowbotic’s China operations told The Star of 1 March 2019.

Professionally, Dato’ Dr. Rais Hussin has a Bachelors degree in Economics (Hons), a Masters in Management and Doctorate in Business Administration.

He is President & Chief Executive Officer of Emir Research and has over 26 years of experience launching and expanding large, complex and ultimately successful enterprise initiatives and international programs across a broad range of technical enterprises in for-profit and non-profit environments, that includes but not limited to, Telekom Malaysia, MCI WorldCom Malaysia, Teleglobe Canada, Axis Technologies and Goldnet Resources, according to Emir’s website.

Dr. Rais also co-author the book “4IR: AI, Blockchain, Fintech – Reinventing a Nation”.

The Ministry of Communications and Multimedia appointed Dr. Rais as MDeC Chairman for. two years effective 15 June 2020.

Arguments

When Kathirgugan returned to Malaysia, he was “surprised and slightly displeased” by the wide use of this “buzzword” “Industry 4.0” amongst those within Malaysia’s information technology (IT) industry, as well as the government.

“It sounded highfalutin enough to be intriguing, familiar enough to be memorable, and yet vague enough that it could be used indiscriminately, making it an especially sticky term”, writes Kathirgugan. “For something to be called a revolution, breakthrough technologies need to be invented and they should drastically change the way we live and work”, he added.

Amongst the technologies involved in Industry 4.0, Kathirgugan regards cloud computing, artificial intelligence and big data analytics as more sophisticated software and internet-enabled tools which are beneficial, though not entirely novel; whilst the same is true of robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT) on the hardware side.

On the other hand, he regards 3D printing and augmented reality as “novel, nascent fields that are still finding their footing and have yet to make a sizeable impact”, though he has “no doubt they will in the future”.

“These technologies exhibit a change in degree and not a change in kind, which is essential if they are to bring about a revolution”, Kathirgugan argues.

He regards social media and the sharing economy, along with autonomous vehicles in the future as bordering on “revolutionary” but notes that somehow, “proponents of IR 4.0 often leave them out of the conversation”.

Besides being able to do things more efficiently, conveniently, and being more virtually connected, in terms of our work and life, Kathirgugan has not seen “a societal-level shift of much significance since the Third Industrial Revolution” and besides the handheld devices we carry around today, “a person who has time travelled from 50 years in the past would find almost everything about today’s world intimately familiar”.

“So, all-in-all, I wouldn’t go as far as to call IR 4.0 a gimmick but those who propound it are certainly premature in their pronouncement. This is why no one I’ve encountered in the tech capitals of the US and China spoke about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Because we’re not in one yet”, Kathirgugan concluded.

Rebuttal

“Figuring out the what the ‘revolution’ is in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is a bit like that (a game of poker). Is it AI, blockchain, crypto, IoT, robotics, or what exactly?” asked Dr. Rais rhetorically.

“In fact, it is the cumulative effect. Any one of those technologies can be viewed as evolutionary, perhaps, on a stand-alone basis; together their impact is revolutionary”, he concluded.

Rebutting Kathirgugan, Dr. Rais added, “Don’t be fooled either by the notion that it’s a long way off. Think of it it like this: by the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to stop the lightning”.

“The quantum acceleration of analytics combined with the ubiquity of connectivity will structurally change the concept and utility of data — ergo the ensuing “digital age” of 4IR.

“When every physical object and individual action can be digitized, monitored, stored and analysed, then is it an evolution or revolution? When the outcome allows you to not just interpret but also replicate and predict objects and actions, then please tell me what is it?, Dr. Rais asked.

Driving the point home against Kathirgugan’s arguments, Dr. Rais argues – “This is 4IR. It’s neither a marketing gimmick nor highfalutin jargon. It is a catch-all term for this change in the human experience”.

“The awesome power of 4IR technology has the potential to control or to liberate, depending on whether technology is placed at the centre of society or society at the centre of technology. By advocating for the latter, we have added another catchy term to our lingo: Malaysia 5.0 — inspired by Japan’s Society 5.0 — the goal of which is to implement 4IR tech evenly across society so that the benefits accrue to all and not just the chosen few.

“That sure sounds to me like the stuff revolutions are made of”, Dr Rais concluded.

Different terminologies?

With this writer having just a conceptual and theoretical understanding of Industry 4.0 from having read about and covered conferences and seminars about Industry 4.0 and having written articles about it, it’s hard to argue against Kathirgugan who has direct industry and hands-on experience, However, could people in different countries be calling it by different terms?

Kathirgugan says he has not heard the term “Industry 4.0” mentioned in the Silicon Valley or Shenzhen but my Google search on “American equivalent of Industry 4.0” yielded a slew of results and articles which speak of Industry 4.0 in the American context.

For instance in a video entitled “Industry 4.0 • A Brief History” posted on The Boeing Center You Tube channel in June 2017, John Stroup, President and CEO of Belden Inc. told attendees at his talk at The Boeing Center at Washington University’s Olin Business School that having been coined in Germany, the term “Industry 4.0” (or Industrie 4.0”) is used in Germany and can be used interchangeably with the term “Smart Factory” used in the United States.

Stroup describes Industry 4.0 as “The German term for data exchange in manufacturing. It includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and cloud computing. Industry 4.0 creates what has been called a smart factory”.

He describes a smart factory as:- “Smart Manufacturing”, “Intelligent Factory” and “Factory of the Future” all describe an intelligent, flexible and dynamic production facility, where machinery and equipment have the ability to improve processes through self-optimisation and autonomous decision making”.

Stroup describes the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) thus:- “The explosion of the number of smart devices that are interconnected via the Internet. The IIoT is revolutionising the way industry operates by sharing the information/data produced to improve existing business models and enable new ones”.

Founded in Chicago, Illinois in 1902, Belden is an American manufacturer of networking, connectivity, and cable products. It designs, manufactures, and markets signal transmission products for demanding applications. Washington University, the Olin Business School and Belden’s current headquarters today are based in St. Louis, Missouri, pretty far from the Silicon Valley.

In a blog post entitled “Why You Know More About Industry 4.0 Than You Think” on the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), U.S. Department of Commence dated 2 December 2019 states:-

“If industrial manufacturing had a buzzword of the decade, it might be “Industry 4.0.” The concept is inescapable, yet it can be hard to define, especially for small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs). After all, SMMs’ capabilities, needs, and budgets look very different from the large companies who often drive the latest innovations and trends. However, Industry 4.0 is so pervasive that many smaller manufacturers know more about the technologies than they might think. Below, we define Industry 4.0, then explore ways that SMMs can and do implement it already.”

“To date, there have been four major technological trends over the past few hundred years that have revolutionized industry and manufacturing. The first was the combination of mechanization with both steam and water power. The second joined mass production and electricity. The third was the rise of electronic and information technology (IT) systems, and with them automation.

“We are now well into the fourth era of development, called Industry 4.0. According to PwC’s Insights, Industry 4.0 “refers to the fourth industrial revolution, which connects machines, people, and physical assets into an integrated digital ecosystem that seamlessly generates, analyses and communicates data, and sometimes takes action based on that data without the need for human intervention.”

“While this definition may sound complicated, Industry 4.0 is both more common and easier to implement than you might think.”

Well, the NIST, a United States government agency headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland mentions “Industry 4.0” a lot.  

Meanwhile, an article entitled “Made in China 2025”: China’s answer to Industry 4.0” posted on the European Chamber of Commerce, Shanghai Office website on 22 June 2016 says:-

“Made in China 2025” is an initiative to comprehensively upgrade Chinese industry and it draws direct inspiration from Germany’s “Industry 4.0” plan, which was first discussed in 2011 and later adopted in 2013. The heart of the “Industry 4.0” idea is intelligent manufacturing, i.e., applying the tools of information technology to production. In the German context, this primarily means using the Internet of Things to connect small and medium-sized companies more efficiently in global production and innovation networks so that they could not only more efficiently engage in mass production but just as easily and efficiently customize products.

“As China enters into the midst of the 4th Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, Made in China 2025 and Internet Plus have become the key economic triggers of China’s long-term economic strategy. “Economists believe that the combination of these initiatives will enable a new industrial revolution. With enormous potential to capitalize on the opportunities generated through transition towards a creative and high tech driven economy”.

All the above jives with my understanding of what an Industry 4.0-enabled manufacturing facilities and logistics management are all about, conceptually at least.

Revolution of gimmick?

Coming back to the question posed at the beginning of this article, Industry 4.0 or whatever else people call it certainly is not a gimmick, though with it still being a young and evolving next generation of advanced intelligent automation, the current expectations, predictions and claims of its and revolutionary potential could turn out differently as it develops and matures over say the next 15 to 20 years.

It’s just like when public availability of Internet access began in the early 1990s, various people including sociologists, new media consultants, cyber-activists, cyber-utopians and others claimed that it would undermine the power of governments, undermine the market dominance of corporate monopolies and oligopolies, bypass government censorship, break the dominance of mainstream media by turning to independent bloggers and website for news and information, undermine the power of governments whilst empowering ordinary citizens and so forth and whilst some of that has turned out to be true, at the same time we read and hear of global social media giants either undermining of blocking access to certain creators’ content or excluding them from the platforms altogether.

As for Malaysia, I wonder whether the majority of industry players ranging from micro enterprises up to large domestic corporations, government and multinationals will eventually adopt Industry 4.0 technologies and systems or whether it will mostly be the big boys, whilst smaller players will be able to survive without it or will they be driven to the wayside or even out of business.

As for its socio-economic impact, with a growing number of unemployed graduates coupled with loss of job opportunities due to investors shifting the production plants out to our lower wage and lower cost neighbours, will the adoption of Industry 4.0 production facilities to reduce their reliance of human labour result in higher levels of unemployment or will they enable the creation of new jobs and businesses which can replace production work as a source of mass employment?

Only time will tell how all this turns out.

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